Home Television “General Hospital” Celebrates 50 Years With a Classy Nod to the Past

Soap operas don’t get much respect, witness Procter & Gamble just cancelling “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light” with no regard to the fans or the people who worked on them. ABC followed suit by axing “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” although those shows will now attempt a comeback online at the end of April. ABC almost wiped out “General Hospital,” but instead fired the exec who hated soaps (Brian Frons), transferred over the executive producer and head writer who’d– too late– revived “One Life”– and voila! “General Hospital” celebrates its 50th anniversary this week.

Yesterday was the official “50th Anniversary Show,” delayed by a day because the naming of Pope Francis knocked the daytime schedule out of whack. The guy who writes the show, Ron Carlivati, and his team, have done the impossible. “General Hospital” was unwatchable for years. Long story, it had turned into a daytime version of “The Godfather.” Most of the favorite actors and characters were gone. They were replaced by shrillness. The ratings disappeared. Frons (he was fired) was replacing soaps with shows about chopping turnips and hanging curtains. It was almost curtains for “General Hospital.”

Carlivati et al went to work a little more than a year ago. It’s an unprecedented revival. The mob is gone, and the head mobster now just has relationship issues. (His beloved has two personalities.) Finola Hughes was brought back as Anna Devane, the local international spy who now runs the Port Charles Police Department. She is so magnificent that you have to blink twice to realize she’s actually there. A raft of the old faves are back, including Genie Francis as the iconic Laura (of Luke and — fame), and Kristina Wagner, who is more beautiful than ever. Carlivati seems like he’s juggling a good 50 characters, some of whom did or didn’t know each other over the years, but we all knew them. His continuity person must be going insane.

I watch sporadically. Yesterday’s show was absolutely top notch. It began with the head nurse, a large black woman named Epiphany, dropping a reference to the “GH” creators Frank and Doris Hursley, on a phone call. Carlivati is always throwing in ‘in’ jokes and asides. There were lots of surprises and returns from the past. But the most startling was Rachel Ames, who’d been on the show pretty much since 1963 until the last regime threw her out, unceremoniously, a few years ago. I thought maybe she’d retired or was ill. Surprise! At 83, she looked and sounded better than a lot of the younger cast. Who knew? My bet is we’ll be seeing her again.

Soaps are always noted for where hot actors got their start. But no nods are ever given to the superb people who made it their careers and stuck it out. The great Stuart Damon played Alan Quartermaine until that last regime tossed him, too. On camera. So now he must return as a ghost. He is a welcome presence. Jane Elliott plays his atrocious sister and Lesley Charleson is his widow. They are just great. Anthony Geary still plays Luke (of —and Laura) like a rascal who’s seen it all. Constance Towers was on yesterday, brandishing a gun and threatening people. I looked it up–she turns 80 in May. Amazing! There’s a guy named John York who’s been on the show every time I’ve turned it on for 30 years. He’s never aged, and is always likable.

I look for these people when I remember to turn on the show, about once a week, just before the daily flurry of entertainment news has to be reported. They are like an oasis. I’m so glad the people running the show have respect for it now. It can really make a day when Justin Bieber does something silly, and it’s back to work we go.

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